I now realize that when I posted about my experience at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, I had gotten ahead of myself, because the germ of that visit began at Namdapha National Park. Namdapha…the name flirts and rolls around to fill your mouth, just as trekking there fills your senses.
I first met with Shashank Dalvi in March 2015 when he had organised a trek to Namdapha. After my initial foray into Kutch, I traveled every month of the year and covered the Central Himalayas extensively. I badly wanted to photograph the colourful birds of the North East and grow my list to 1000 birds of India. I had covered most parts of India by the time I was ready to travel to Namdapha.
I was seeking solitude and needed to take life at an easy pace during 2015. All the travel around the rest of India was done at a frenetic pace. Namdapha was that perfect place to bird at a gentle pace and that solitude came from the serene and silent forest. A perfect place to be lost inside a forest that totally separates you from rest of the world.
I had heard from every corner about Shashank Dalvi and especially about his work in Doyang, Nagaland. He and his team had put a stop to the annual culling of Amur Falcon’s in Nagaland, especially in Doyang.
We had heard rumors of large-scale bird hunting around the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland some time ago. In September 2012, Bano Haralu, Ramki Sreenivasan, Rokohebi Kuotsu and I decided to investigate. What we saw shocked us – a massacre of thousands of Amur Falcons. Roko and I spent the next couple of days filming the slaughter and interacting with the hunters to understand the extent and nature of the hunt. It remains the most difficult and emotionally harrowing experience of my career.
Since then, I always wanted to bird alongside this man and learn his skill and patience. When you are in love with all creatures around you and understand their roles and impact on universal relationships you become patient in your role towards contributing toward their conservation.
Namdapha is declared a Project Tiger Reserve. It is also known as the land of four big cats. The only place on earth to host them all in one forest. This is also the place for rare mammal like the Takin, Musk Deer and the veryrare Slow Loris. The fragrant Agarwood is also found here. With an area of 2000 square kilometers, Namdapha is the largest virgin forests of India.
As soon as you cross the turbulent and frequent course altering river Neo Dhing and trek besides the elephant grass and walk towards Hornbill point one thing is very palpable…. The empty forest syndrome.
Absolute silence. At times you hear the rustle drifting from sky high canopies. The trees stand very tall and the fragrance of their resins and fresh mood fill the air.
Any sign of the big cats were not visible and their prey base is almost non existent except for a few calls from barking deers.
You can feel the glory of the largest reserve forest in North east India as you amble along the 44 kms trek towards Namdapha from Deban.
After an overnight stay at Miao, we crossed river Deban with 8 trekkers and 23 porters. They had gathered luggage, tents, groceries including gas cylinders in bamboo baskets. They would always reach our destinations much in advance and pitch tents, arrange kitchen and the buffet table. The team of 23 enablers were a group of self motivated individuals, who would pitch in to fit in multiple roles. They pitched residence tents, toilet tents, ready the sit out layouts, ready the buffets and every conceivable convenience, for the hard core trekkers. Each of our meal had a dessert and fruits as well..
Initially, we gathered at Dibrugarh airport and moved toward Tinsukia, where we stayed overnight in a hotel. We drove around to watch and photograph birds at Maguri Beel and in the oil fields of Digboi for two days. Maguri Beel had totally captivated my heart and it is one destination I never miss when in the region. I visit the grasslands at least once in 6 months on average. It is a great birding destination and food connoisseur’s destination. It throws in a rare avian visitor at regular frequency.
Later we drove into Arunachal Pradesh and halted at Miao. We drove around to watch birds and very high on my target was ‘Snowy-throated Babbler’. I was not ready to accept the fact that I likely would be able to photograph just the top half of the bird. I was very used to getting complete bird shots, unconcealed by leaves. As I waited for the bird to show up completely in the open, the bird would scurry across the road. To date my camera sensor still waits to imprint this beautiful bird. I have seen the bird well, but it still remains a lifer to me – as my personal ethos is to add a bird to my count only after I make a picture of it. One important lesson I learnt on this trip was to discard the need to search birds with a clean and uncluttered background. A bird found in any environment and surrounding is also a highly regarded subject.
This attitude is essential while photographing birds in the entire northeastern India.
The first break after 6 kilometers of trekking into the Namdapha forests was at Haldibari. This trek was moderately easy. The weather was perfect. There were plenty of butterflies and and we met several lepidopterists who opt for a day visit to watch and photograph the colourful creatures. The packed lunches supplied by the catering team made the break all the more enjoyable.
We continued our trek towards Hornbill Glade. We had to to navigate around and over huge fallen trees on the track. We encountered this situation quite often. We watched several birds and basically all of them were in the canopies, except for a few White-bellied Epornis and clean sighting of Streaked Wren-Babbler.
When we arrived where we would camp for the next two days we were greeted with aroma of food wafting across towards us. Hornbill Glade has two large open sheds. We slept in one while the other shed was used as kitchen.
As evening approached, we watched the Giant Flying Squirrels leaping across and latching on to trees almost 50 meters apart.
The next trek to Ranijheel was a bit steeper and narrower path. You can see several species of orchids on the tall trees. Tents were pitches up in an open patch of land close to the lake at Ranijheel, and the kitchen was setup in an open area.
Leeches were in plenty with a total number of 5 species. Leech socks were quite handy and was more useful compared to the aggressive species in Nagaland. The most famous state bird of Assam had been sighted around the area. I had to wait 3 long years and 8 more trips before I saw the White-winged Duck at Dihing Patkai in Assam.
All along the trek you can notice that the forest is rich and intact. The inaccessible terrain is quite a deterrent, which has saved the forest from destruction. The roads are virtually meant for walks alone and the camps within the forest at Haldibari, Hornbill Glade, Ranijheel, and Firmbase cannot be accessed by motor vehicles.
I had hired a boy from the Lisu tribe personally as a porter to carry my gear. He confirmed that the only food for his family came from hunting. They also grew rice. They are completely dependent on the forest for survival. A saying goes that even the wild animals run away from Lisu to protect themselves.
This is one trek which is not to be missed. You are completely cut off from civilisation once you enter Namdapha. The joy of being isolated from the world is a very special feeling.
*I have been mentioning Mr. Shashank Dalvi in several of my posts. For people who are interested to know more about him, please look up the following link. I really hope that every one gets a chance to bird alongside him and experience the joy of birding and learning.